When I started telling people I was moving back to the United States almost everybody asked me why. Usually I would tell them that I missed my loved ones or that the job opportunities were better back home; if I was feeling especially candid I might admit that it was the sandwiches.
It’s a common trope for writers to conceive of their life as divided between parenthesis: the parenthesis that, say, open on a graduation and close with a first real job, or the set that open on a child’s birth and close on a first day of school. Instead of parenthesis I see my life portioned between slices of bread. I see a whole series of sandwiches of varying quality: a childhood between TOGOs hot pastrami and my mom’s tuna salad sandwiches with curry powder and green apple, coming of age from the Padre’s Pride (bacon, chicken, avocado, melted provolone cheese, and pesto sauce) from Mr. Pickles Deli near my house to the gooey chicken cutlet, oil, vinegar, and mozzarella on a Kaiser roll from Cazzie’s Corner Deli in Yonkers just off my college campus. Then, for the last half decade, I’ve been adrift. Living in Africa and Hong Kong, I haven't been able to find a decent sandwich to save my life.
And, it’s not just sandwiches. Sandwiches here are more of a symbol: I miss barbecue, Mexican food, big California avocados, salads with goat cheese and peaches, Ethiopian spreads the size of wagon wheels, all of those regional specialties, and immigrant imports that make American food and food culture so constantly rewarding.
They say you can never go home again and while I’m not sure I will ever be able to find gainful employment in America, establish a satisfying social circle, or slip back into my earlier home life, I know reflexively that the food—and for that matter the music, literature, art, movies, and TV shows—is mine. American culture is my birthright, its food culture most of all. We’ve just become a little bit estranged.
For all my talk of "America", I've barely actually seen (or eaten) much of it at all. All my life on my mental map a big blank space stretched between San Francisco and New York City. I would brag to friends in Hong Kong about how good the ribs were in America, keeping guiltily to myself that the most “authentic” ribs I’d ever tasted were from Oakland California more than 2,000 miles from Memphis.
Over the years I filled that blank space with stereotypes and misconceptions. Like most Bay Area culture-snobs I pictured the middle of country as an endless expanse of mega churches and KKK rallies, where fat men in camouflage took occasional breaks from slow cooking pork butt to handle snakes or shoot shotguns in the air—I know this makes me an asshole. I also know that “the rest of the country” is where those things I love most about America— jazz, bourbon, biscuits, Ham, rock n’ roll, barbecue, and sausage gravy to name but a few—are from. Pretty much none of the things that excited me most about coming home (exceptions: deli, mission style burritos, the Wu-tang clan) were born in New York City or the Bay Area.
Wanting to "come home right", and after many phone conversations with my mother (who I also missed very much, nearly as much as my girlfriend and sandwiches), we together settled on the perfect re-entry.
Mom was already a few weeks into her annual retreat at Hilton Head Health, a health and weight loss resort on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina and we decided that I would fly into the States through New York (sturgeon with scrambled eggs and double decker pastrami and turkey sandwiches from Barney Greengrass), then spend a couple long-time-coming weeks with my supremely patient girlfriend in Washington DC—while eating my way through the city's exploding sandwich scene—before taking a train to Hilton Head where I would join mom in eating a restricted calorie diet without alcohol, and exercising all day every day for two weeks, hopefully undoing some of the the considerable damage done in four years of being a food and booze writer.
Then after the famine, would come the feast.
Since I was a little kid mom had talked about taking a musical pilgrimage slash road trip through the South and West, visiting the birthplaces of her favorite musicians and catching as much live music as possible. I've always wanted to do the same but with an emphasis on food—especially the many different regional styles of barbecue. This, we decided, was the perfect opportunity.
We made plans to meet my uncle at a newly married/pregnant cousin’s house in Asheville, North Carolina. He would then take us—chauffeur is such an ugly word— in his truck (mom doesn't drive on the highway and I don't have a license: the perfect foundation for a road trip) down to Nashville (hot chicken), then Memphis (BBQ!), on down through the deep heart of the Mississippi Delta along the blues trail to New Orleans, cut west through Cajun country—my god that Cajun country No Reservations Episode—up to Austin in Central Texas, across the great Western flats to Santa Fe, through the Mojave desert and over the foothills of the Sierras, and finally home to San Francisco. We would fill the car with books and CDs from the places we were visiting, along with lists of venues, restaurant recommendations and sheafs of menus, eating and listening our way across the country.
Hopefully when the truck finally stopped in the driveway of my childhood home in San Francisco I would feel truly home again. At the very least I wouldn’t be so hungry anymore.